TCS Daily

Serendipity, Art and Technology

By Crispin Sartwell - April 3, 2002 12:00 AM

There's a scene in the movie "Pollock" in which Jackson is gearing up to paint one of his fairly unremarkable quasi-abstractions when he spills a little paint on the canvas. He curses, then looks at the drips with growing interest. Soon he's tossing paint around like Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams used to throw a baseball, and a genius -- as well as abstract expressionism -- is born.

I thought about Pollock as I was reading a piece in Wired about a retired security engineer named Farrell Eaves. He was taking pictures with his digital Nikon when he got distracted and knocked his tripod into a river. After he used extraordinary measures to dry it out -- such as attaching it to his car and driving it around through the desert -- it started taking pictures of ravishing and inexplicable beauty. And suddenly a new art form was invented and the retired
engineer began to mutate into a famous artiste.

What is so remarkable about the work is the colors, which seem to bleed and reconfigure into something that both creates an image that can be read as an abstract and that shows something new and inexplicable about the structure of reality, something you always almost already saw.

The word "serendipity" means a surprising and happy confluence of events in which something good happens by accident. Serendipity has been central to art, to science, to invention, to love: in short, to life. Most of the best things that happen, as well as most of the worst things that happen, happen by accident. And many of the great persons of history are famous through no merit of their own. Columbus, you may recall, bumped into the new world by mistake.

And even the great revolutions that happened on purpose required a serendipitous confluence of events. When Martin Luther started blaspheming against the Catholic Church, he said little that John Wycliff and John Hus hadn't said before him. They got strung up as heretics. But the political and religious situation in which Luther worked was somehow ripe, and pretty soon Lutheranism was everywhere.

It's nice to know, if you were worried, that technology is perfectly compatible with serendipity. It might seem that it's easier to find the serendipitous moment when you're pushed off course by the wind because your ship is pretty primitive, or when you have to apply paints by hand.

But technology in a certain way makes simple operations more and more complex. How a digital camera takes a photograph is much more complicated than the way light imprints itself on film. And the more complex artifacts become, the more things can go wrong, because more factors are interacting.

Thus while we may develop new technologies in order to control the world and one another more effectively, we really only manage to introduce more complexities. And though certain operations become easier, they also become ever more fraught with snafus.

But where, we might ask, would we be without screw-ups? In fact new technologies themselves emerge through accidents, and then by the accidents these technologies introduce, we experience new beauties.

Indeed (and though Luther would disapprove), we might make a religion of the screw-up. The world -- that greatest of works of art -- is a sweet mistake, and essentially everything that happens in it is an accident. All the beauty that's around us and that we make is impossible without the arbitrary coincidence.

You yourself are no doubt accidental, due the happy malfunctioning of birth control devices or unintentional impregnation in some generation or other among your forebears. This of course connects us to the universe as a whole: the cosmic accident.

And so Farrell Eaves and his Nikon are an emblem of all that's holy, true, and good.

Crispin Sartwell is chair of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and writes frequently for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Baltimore Sun. His website is

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